When we are young, we look to the elderly for wisdom. This in itself is a mark of wisdom. If we don’t, if we have no regard for the life lessons that the elderly have to offer, then we are foolish, and more likely to make the costly mistakes against which they wisely warned us.
This is not to say that all the elderly are wise. We don’t necessarily become wise by the mere fact of living a long life. At the same time, if someone reaches the age of 90, we can reasonably assume that they probably did something right. They did not achieve that milestone by living recklessly, by spurning God’s good gifts in life that promote human flourishing.
This was the assumption of a young man named Sahil Bloom. On his 32nd birthday, Sahil, from New York, asked several 90 year olds the following question: “What advice would you give to your 32-year-old self?”
This request elicited a number of responses that Sahil posted on Twitter (since renamed X). The tweet was viewed more than 19 million times.
Here are a few of the more poignant included among the forty that Sahil compiled.
“Dance at weddings until your feet are sore.”
“Don’t fear sadness, as it tends to sit right next to love.”
“Treat your body like a house that you have to live in for the next 70 years.”
“Taking no risk is the biggest risk you can take. Regret from inaction is always more painful than regret from action.”
“You may win the argument, but if you lose the friend, then what’s the point?”
“No amount of money is ever worth trading for your peace of mind.”
Most of us probably had an older, wiser loved one in our lives, one on whom we relied for guidance, for wisdom, and even for instruction in our faith in God.
And it’s good to have a day in the church’s calendar set aside to remember them, to honor them, and above all to cherish their witness to the faith that we confess.
Today we’re observing All Saints Day, for which our Gospel lesson is a familiar one. It features a unit of teaching that begins Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. To be more specific, it contains the Beatitudes, a Latinized English word that means “blessing-sayings.”
When we read them on All Saints Day, we should at the same time contemplate those saints in our lives in whom at least some if not all these character traits were present.
Picture that loved one (or those loved ones) now. Would you describe them as poor in spirit? That is, did they acknowledge their dependence on God? Would you describe them as mournful? That is, were their hearts sensitive enough to break over the sorrows and misfortunes of others?
Or would you describe them as meek?
And by meek, we don’t mean weak, passive, and without backbone. Those are not traits worth contemplating. We mean rather a genuine humility towards others, a non-assertiveness that creates space for the other to be himself, to relax in our presence.
The meek person is not threatened by the other. He is gentle, not a short-tempered or violent person.
Calvin describes the meek as the calm and quiet ones, who are not easily provoked by the wrongs done to them, who do not sulk over offenses against them, but are more ready to endure everything than to pay the wrongdoer back.
The meek would rather yield their ground, not out of fear or lack of strength, but willingly, for the sake of Christ.
Rather than striking back when mistreated, the meek pay back good for evil. They turn the other cheek. They bless rather than curse. They love and pray for their persecutors, confident that when they are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, the favor of God awaits them.
They have these traits, because the peace of Christ dwells in their hearts. Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). Having been justified by faith, they have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).
Peacemaking, then, is first of all God’s work, achieved in us through Christ. Those who know God and live in God’s peace are motivated to bring this peace to others.
Indeed, they can’t help it, because to know God’s peace is to be at peace with oneself. And when one is at peace with oneself, one’s very presence exudes peace.
Only the peaceful are able and willing to make peace. That is why they hunger and thirst for righteousness. The word used here for “righteousness” is interchangeable with “justice.” And they know that without justice, there is no peace.
That is why they’re merciful. In Christ, they have received mercy rather than judgment. They know that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. They are convinced that the greatest act of God’s mercy is forgiving sins.
In Christ, God has mercy on frail and fallible human beings, forgiving their sins, reconciling them to himself, and calling them his children.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God!” the Apostle John exclaims. “What we will be has not yet been revealed. But when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is…All who have this hope purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
This is the Apostle John’s gloss on the beatitude we have yet to mention: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
But let’s keep this very practical. The saints have not only been called the “children of God”; they have lived in the world as the “children of God,” not only as peacemakers but also in all those other ways that Jesus has indicated in his blessing-sayings.
But we must not assume that there is a twofold class hierarchy that divides Christians. There are not the super-Christians, whom we label saints, on one hand, and on the other, the ordinary Christians, among whom we may count ourselves.
Last Sunday, many churches celebrated Reformation Day. No doubt many of you know that one of the Reformers’ great contributions was to abolish this hierarchy. Luther and Calvin deplored the “double Christianity” that they inherited from the Medieval Church. That double Christianity consisted of two tiers: on the first tier were the priests, monks and nuns; on the second were all the rest. But for the Reformers, the Christian faith is to be lived out by the whole people of God in the routines of everyday life. Martin Luther famously insisted on the “priesthood of all believers.”
Here Luther drew inspiration from 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
What this means for us is that we who are here today—we too are called to be saints. The blessing-sayings are for us, the “ordinary Christians.” At the end of our lives, when we have passed from the Church militant to the Church triumphant, and those who remain in the struggle here remember us on an All Saints Day worship service sometime in the future, they should contemplate the traits we have described as belonging to us, too.
Now before someone objects that to be one of those “blessed” to whom Jesus promises reward is hopelessly beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, let us consider a very important truth: We cannot make ourselves holy.
We don’t make ourselves into saints. God does. This is what the term “sanctification” refers to.
The Reformers saw our salvation in Christ under a double aspect. On the one hand, God delivered us from sin and condemnation by his grace through Christ. They called this justification. Christ bore our sins on the cross. And by bearing them, he bore them away. God no longer counts them against us, but instead counts us as righteous before him, through faith in Christ.
But God has not only redeemed us by Christ’s blood. He’s also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, conforming us more and more to the likeness of his Son. The Reformers called this sanctification.
While justification is a once for all event, sanctification is an ongoing process. Sanctification is not perfected in us until we join those saints who have gone before us.
God is sanctifying us too, making us holy, to the end that his image may be reflected in us.
A Catholic priest told of his visit to Rome. While there, he went to see the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, as most people who go to Rome do.
But at that time, it was closed to visitors. Inside the chapel were drop cloths, boards and scaffolding. Church authorities had commissioned a restoration project. Over the centuries, corrosion, dirt, grime, candle soot, and leaks marred the magnificent paintings of Michelangelo that adorn the chapel.
The team carefully worked on the task of restoration for fourteen years. When it was completed, “it was like opening a window in a dark room and seeing it flooded with light.”
These words echo those of Giorgio Vasari, the first biographer of Michelangelo. In the 16th century, he said of the art of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel: “There is no other work [that can compare to it]. It has proved a veritable beacon for art, of [measureless] benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness.”
A similar process happens in us. When we are united to Christ through baptism and faith, God undertakes in us a restoration project. By his Holy Spirit, he washes and cleans and purifies us on the inside. His object is to make us into saints, so that he may see his own image reflected in us.
And in making us his saints, his holy people, he restores light to a world that for centuries has been submerged into darkness.
Hear the words of Jesus, which he uttered immediately after giving the “blessing-sayings.”
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a candle and put it under a bushel, but they put in it a candlestick, and it gives light to all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:15-16). That is God’s desire for his saints.
Today we observe All Saints Day. This day can be compared to Memorial Day. On Memorial Day we remember and honor the soldiers who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
The church has her own soldiers who served in the church militant. They followed Christ their Commander at great personal sacrifice, having been conformed to him in his death, that they might participate in his resurrection. There are great saints among them, many of whom we celebrate as martyrs.
But we have been saying that to restrict the term “saint” to them alone is to define the term too narrowly. There have been saints among us. The ordinary Christians who lived out their faith in grace and humility—these are also included among the great number of saints we remember and honor on All Saints Day.
To God they are not ordinary. In his kingdom, who knows? They may have a higher rank than we would expect.
They leave for us an example, because we too are called to be numbered among them. For our aspiration is to finish this race well, to overcome in the struggle, to keep the faith, though ceaselessly under attack, until the very end, so that just as we remember the saints, honor them, and above all cherish their witness to the faith that binds us to them, so also we may have those who come after us to do the same for us.